How I Beat a Fear of Swimming & Took Adult Swimming Lessons
"You don't know how to swim?"
I heard that same question every time the topic was brought up. "Nope, never learned it," I would say, somewhat sheepishly. "I kinda, sorta took lessons when I was 8 or 9, but they never stuck with me. Maybe someday?"
It's not that I didn't want to know how to swim. It's just that I had a slight fear of swimming when I was young, and I assumed I had missed my opportunity to learn now that I was older. Every person I knew had learned to swim in their adolescence. I was 32, and while my inability to swim was embarrassing, my imagination portrayed swimming lessons as an adult as potentially more embarrassing. I imagined 32-year-old me awkwardly flailing in the water—while a 9-year-old student swimmer in the lane next to me exhibited perfect fundamentals. "I'm too lanky to swim," I would say, with no scientific evidence. "My body sinks in the water."
And then I got married. And my wife (a former high-school swimmer) started mentioning that her gym offered adult swimming lessons. At first, I recoiled—almost reflexively—at the idea. I was scared of failing. I was even scared of drowning, since I hadn't learned how to overcome fear of swimming in deep water. But my wife persisted, and after months of asking me to do it, she got me to reluctantly agree to give it a shot.
What Adult Swimming Lessons are Like
I took a six-week course in the Chicagoland area. Each class lasted somewhere in the vicinity of 45 minutes. Here's a week-by-week description of how it went:
It's always nerve-racking to attend a class for the first time, and this was no exception. But my butterflies subsided after meeting my two classmates, both about my age and skill level. It was clear that we weren't there to judge one another. Class was simple. The instructor asked us to get our feet wet (pun intended) by taking a deep breath, then dunking our heads underwater while breathing out, then repeating. I learned that mastering breathing patterns is essential, but it will take time, patience, and practice. Finally, we floated. It turned out that my body doesn't defy the laws of physics and can indeed float.
The next step was learning a backstroke. The instructor recommended swimming fins to help. If you've never tried fins, they make you feel like a mermaid capable of superfast speeds—I was zipping through the water—but they also teach you proper kicking techniques. By the end of week 3, I was doing something I never thought I could: swimming the entire length of a pool without touching the bottom.
By now, there was no fear of attending classes. My classmates and I were actively encouraging each other, especially when we were struggling. The swimming techniques we were learning were getting more difficult, including the side stroke, a modified freestyle, and breathing rhythms. By the end of six weeks, I hadn't mastered any technique. But I was much further along than before, and wanting to continue swimming beyond the class.
5 Takeaways for Adult Swim-Lesson Newbies
1. Just do it.
I get it. Swimming lessons at your age can seem daunting. But whether you're 24 or 64, these lessons are worth it. You can learn a valuable new skill and gain new self-confidence. Plus, swimming is linked to lower blood pressure and higher well-being.
2. Know that you're not alone.
More adults can't swim than you might think. A recent survey by the American Red Cross found that while 80 percent of Americans say they can swim, more than half of Americans can't actually perform the "basic skills" of swimming. So don't feel ashamed that you never learned to swim—feel excited about learning a new skill.
3. Don't be intimidated by the water.
If you're specifically afraid of going into the water, your local gym might offer classes specifically for you. This should be your first step. If you're more uncomfortable with the sensation of swallowing water or getting it in your ears, know that this discomfort typically goes away the more that you practice.
This is the most important thing to remember. My instructor said it over and over again: "You need to relax." Remember, if you're completely relaxed, your body will float naturally. Don't resist the laws of nature! Beginner swimmers often tense up when they swim, contorting their body in ways that create unnecessary resistance with the water.
5. Practice, practice, practice (repeated into infinity).
You know the adage. But the only way to learn how to swim is to keep practicing until it's ingrained into your muscle memory. Don't stop.